Wait, The New Anthony Bourdain Documentary Deepfaked His Voice?

Anthony Bourdain lays down and stares into the camera in a scene from 'Roadrunner'

The new documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, sounds like it is in many ways exactly what fans might expect. Filmmaker Morgan Neville tracks the life and career of the beloved celebrity chef, author and TV host and provides some insights into his perspective on his adventures around the world. However, one aspect of the film has caused some eyebrows to raise -- elements of the film’s voice over, seemingly from Bourdain himself, are actually the result of a deepfake.

Morgan Neville recently explained that a lot of thought and attention to detail went into creating Roadrunner’s computer-generated Bourdain narrative. And during his recent interview with GQ, he revealed that initially, the voice over wasn’t even going to be part of the documentary:

In the beginning, I went and gathered everything he ever said about his life. I went through every book and podcast and voiceover session, and put together a binder of, like, 500 pages of him talking about his life. There was a moment when I was even like, ‘Gee, I could make the whole film in his voice,’ though I stopped myself instantly. But then I came across a few things he wrote but that he never said. And so, I had this idea to create an AI model of his voice, which we did.

Anthony Bourdain’s narrative style, voice and personality were always very strong, and fans became well-acquainted with it after he hosted series like No Reservations. Neville also explained how they were able to accomplish recreating Bourdain’s voice for Roadrunner, and the kinds of decisions that went into what the end result would sound like:

We fed more than ten hours of Tony’s voice into an AI model. The bigger the quantity, the better the result. We worked with four companies before settling on the best. We also had to figure out the best tone of Tony’s voice: His speaking voice versus his “narrator” voice, which itself changed dramatically of over the years. The narrator voice got very performative and sing-songy in the No Reservation years. I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive.

Making a documentary about someone’s life is always a challenge, but there’s a particular sensitivity that's involved when the subject has passed away. An added layer of scrutiny comes into play when the person in question was, like Bourdain, loved by so many.

It’s good to hear that Neville and his team sought permission from Bourdain’s family and thought carefully about how to incorporate the AI voice. According to The New York Times, the film features approximately 45 seconds of Bourdain’s artificially-derived voice -- though some will likely continue to question the ethics of Neville’s decision to include it at all.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is currently playing in theaters.

Katherine Webb